Rabies Vaccines Now Dropping from the Sky

Rabies Vaccine

Story at-a-glance -

  • For the 10th year in a row, the state of Tennessee conducted widespread drops of raccoon rabies vaccine packets using cars, trucks, small planes, and for the first time, helicopters.
  • More than 40,000 vaccine packets were dropped over a 15-county region of the state ranging from 30 to 60 miles wide, covering 3,400 square miles, and running from the Virginia/North Carolina border in northeast Tennessee to the Georgia border in southeast Tennessee.
  • The vaccine packets are smeared with fish meal, which appeals to raccoons. The plastic packets squirt rabies vaccine into raccoons’ mouths when they bite down on them.
  • According to Wildlife Services, the 40,000 packets dropped in Tennessee are to stop the spread of a raccoon-variant of rabies that at its peak saw only 14 cases of the disease, with no cases reported at all in the last five years.
  • The USDA claims the vaccine packets pose no danger to pets. However, there are recommended precautions to safeguard both children and pets in the event a bait packet is found.

By Dr. Becker

In October, for the 10th year in a row, the state of Tennessee conducted widespread “baiting” with raccoon rabies vaccine packets. This year, they added helicopter drops of the packets to their usual by-hand (from cars and trucks) and small plane distribution methods.

The plan was to deliver 40,000 vaccine packets over a 15-county region of Tennessee that ranges from 30 to 60 miles wide, covers 3,400 square miles, and runs along the Virginia/North Carolina border in northeast Tennessee to the Georgia border in southeast Tennessee near Chattanooga.

The reason the helicopter drops were added this year was to reduce the likelihood vaccine packets would wind up in backyard swimming pools and private lawns, and improve distribution of the packets in wooded areas near water where raccoons tend to gather.

The vaccine packets resemble ketchup packets and are smeared with stinky fish meal, which appeals to raccoons. The plastic packets squirt rabies vaccine into raccoons’ mouths when they bite down on them. According to officials, the packages don’t pose a danger to pets, but children should be kept away from them.

Are These Vaccine Packets a Solution Looking for a Problem?

According to Erin Patrick of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, raccoon-variant rabies is a strain that is easily transmitted among raccoons. It originated in Florida, but showed up in West Virginia back in the 1970s, likely from a transplanted, sick raccoon. The disease then “exploded up and down the East Coast,” according to Patrick, spreading at a rate of 25 miles a year. Today, some four decades later, however, it is still confined to the East Coast. But per Patrick, if nothing is done, in another 50 years raccoon rabies will have spread west of the Rockies.

To insure this doesn’t happen, Wildlife Services drops about 6.5 million vaccine packets each year along a “vaccine barrier” line that runs from Maine to Alabama.

In Hamilton County, Tennessee, the number of raccoons with rabies peaked at 14 in 2004, one year after the baiting program began. In 2005, there was only one case, none in 2006, and one each in 2007 and 2008. No cases have been reported since 2008. Patrick believes this is a “significant decline,” and that Hamilton County is “a good little poster child for how this should work.”

I’m not convinced dropping 40,000 vaccine packets over 3,400 square miles to prevent a disease that hasn’t been seen in five years, and at its height infected a reported 14 animals, is a good investment of taxpayer dollars – but I’ll leave that to someone else to sort out!

Protecting Your Pets and Kids from Vaccine Bait

Although USDA Wildlife Services maintains the vaccine packets are safe, the Tennessee Department of Health issues a list of precautions for anyone living or visiting one of the baiting areas:

  • If you or your pet find bait, confine your pet and look for other baits in the area. Wear gloves or use a towel and toss baits into a wooded or fence-row area. These baits should be removed from where your pet could easily eat them. Eating these baits won’t harm your pet, but consuming several baits might upset your pet’s stomach.
  • Don’t try to remove an oral rabies vaccine packet from your pet’s mouth, as you could be bitten.
  • Wear gloves or use a towel when you pick up bait. While there is no harm in touching undamaged baits, they have a strong fish meal smell. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if there is any chance the vaccine packet has been ruptured.
  • Instruct children to leave baits alone.

In addition, each vaccine packet contains a warning label that advises people not to touch it and contains the rabies information line telephone number.

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